Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Uppity Vaginas and Educational Porn

By Donna George Storey

When you write erotica, some very interesting topics can make people think of you.  For example, a friend recently forwarded me two articles, one The New Yorker's review of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, the other a Sunday New York Times article on Cindy Gallop’s new YouTube for the “erotically unabashed,” MakeLoveNotPorn.tv.  Both articles are indeed relevant to my work in terms of the nominal topic, but I found the journalists’ assumptions and overall tone surprisingly revealing of the deeply-rooted negative attitudes towards sexuality in our mainstream culture.   As erotica writers, we are still coping with these attitudes from “serious” publishers, editors, and reviewers every day.

Let’s start with the more obviously relevant piece about a woman who wants to change the world by presenting positive, honest depictions of sex.  Cara Buckley’s article “Spreading the Word (and Pictures) on ‘Real’ Sex” profiles a 52-year-old businesswoman’s journey from advertising executive to creator of a website where real people can upload vetted videos of themselves having “non-performance” sex for $5, and viewers can pay $5 to watch (50% of proceeds go the contributor—which would be quite favorable terms from an e-book publisher).   The creator of this enterprise, Cindy Gallop, got her idea when she put a profile on a dating website and discovered that younger men were eager to get it on with an older, successful woman who was interested in fun, not commitment.  But she couldn’t help but notice that many of her lovers acted like porn stars in bed, and not in a good way.  (Which reminds me of a joke where a man making love to a woman stops mid-thrust every minute or so, waits a few seconds, then begins to thrust again.  “What are you doing?” she asks him.  “Buffering,” he replies).

In order to help other women who felt “trapped in someone else’s pornographic fantasy,” Gallop decided to offer an appealing alternative to porn by inviting real people to share playful, honest sexual encounters.  Buckley writes that “compared with the harsh lens of mainstream pornography, the videos come across as sweet, earnest, languid, playful, and deeply human.”

Which is exactly how I’d describe well-written erotica, which has been available for quite some time in print and online.  And which is why, perhaps, erotica is where many women turn to satisfy their sexual curiosity in a society where female erotic desire is still cause for surprise and scandal.   Indeed, Gallop does not escape the age-old media attempt to portray a sexually aware woman as exceptional.  Her penchant for leather bustiers and younger men invoke the figure of the prostitute-turned-madam, and we learn far too much about her exotic, expensively appointed bachelorette lair in Chelsea.  Yet as an older woman who is very much committed to celebrating the truth of the female sexual experience myself—even if I prefer blue brocade corsets with shoulder straps--I wish Ms. Gallop the best in translating the female vision of eros to the computer screen.  The more we tell our side of the story, beyond cliche, in every medium, the happier both sexes will all be in life and in bed.

Unfortunately, Ariel Levy’s view of Naomi Wolf’s new book was not quite as uplifting.   For me, Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is right up there beside Susan Faludi’s Backlash as an important book in the ongoing feminist dialogue with conservative cultural forces in the late twentieth century, so I was expecting an intriguing preview of Vagina: A New Biography.  However, Levy’s review goes straight for a common strategy that “serious” culture uses to keep sexuality in its place:  ridicule.  Throughout the essay, she mocks Wolf’s efforts to equate the vagina with the female brain and soul, the gateway to a woman’s creativity.  Admittedly, the quotes she chooses from the book do sound pretty silly, but I also found the reviewer’s perspective equally problematic.  Levy insists that her own vagina doesn’t know or care how it’s treated--genitalia as the quintessence of stupidity.  And she is unmoved by Wolf’s contention that verbally insulting a woman’s vagina is a form of physical violence.  Why?  Because the scientific study that shows rats’ vaginas exhibit changes under stressful conditions is not proof since the experimenters were not shouting “Rat pussy!” at their subjects.

Yes, it’s a funny line, but let’s remember what else is going on here.  According to Levy, Wolf’s attempts to “conjur[e] a fevered, enchanted world where female consciousness is situated not between the ears but between the legs” is a “kind of pornography” along the lines of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Trashy smut, that is.  Because if we don’t keep the pure mind separate from the filthy, base, animalistic urges, then civilization will fall and with it, most tragically no doubt, The New Yorker.

Of course, a good New Yorker review must be about more than just a single book, and Levy delivers with a discussion of the feminist battle over the reduction of the female to her body—in particular through pornography.  First she presents the efforts of the Andrea Dworkin, Catharine McKinnon, and Susan Brownmiller “faction” to make pornography a civil rights’ violation.  Then, in a classic “fair and balanced” dualistic journalistic approach, we have our competing faction, the pro-sex feminists.  Levy gives no names for this group (Erica Jong?  Susie Bright?  Marcy Sheiner?  Violet Blue?  Cindy Gallop?) but these females surprised the radical feminists by being turned on by porn and wanting neither men nor women to define and control their sexuality.  Of course, those who support free speech can easily see the drawbacks of the anti-pornography activists’ efforts, but the fair and balanced approach must give us the con side of pro-sex as follows:

“...There were problems with the pro-sex position, too—things could get a little zipless and g-spotty.  Like their cohorts in the sexual revolution, many of the pro-sex feminists fell prey to the alluring but dubious conflation of fornication and emancipation.  Orgasms are swell, but they are not the remedy to every injustice.”

I’ll admit up front, I find this description of the failings of pro-sex feminism so vague, it almost defies dispute.  “Zipless” doubtless refers to Jong's Fear of Flying, but what the hell does “g-spotty” mean, especially as a criticism of advocacy for freedom of erotic expression?  As both a pro-sex feminist and erotica writer, I’m not even sure what the problem is here (except maybe the fact that the clitoris and vulva are not given their say).  Specific examples attributed to individual activists would surely help more than a string of fifty-cent words like “the dubious conflation of fornication and emancipation.”  In case you don’t remember, “fornication” is an old-fashioned word for sex between people who aren’t married to each other.  Is Levy suggesting that pro-sex feminists are pushing sexual exploration outside of marriage (including the time in our lives before that sacred ceremony) to the detriment of female equality?  More to the point, I don’t know of a single pro-sex feminist who has claimed that [female?] orgasms are a remedy to every injustice.  However, the understanding of what pleases women sexually and equal satisfaction for all partners is extremely important to redressing injustice in the particular context of a sexual encounter.

Like the uproar surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m finding the way Vagina is discussed far more educational than the book itself could ever be.  Other reviewers have called Vaginautter drivel” and “almost too boring to review.”  They also revel in the chance to make snide remarks about Wolf’s orgasms and her squeamishness about “dirty talk,” thus casting her as embarrassingly open and ridiculously prudish all at once.  Okay, so maybe the book is not ground-breaking in terms of science, philosophy or revolutionary sexual discovery.  So it doesn’t “represent feminism.”  How many books out there accomplish any of these things?  If Wolf’s fame, photogenic face, and an editorial penchant for titillating controversy have made her an undeserving focus of attention, then the workings of the system that forced the assignment on so many annoyed reviewers might be worth some scrutiny as well.  But somehow everyone’s culprit is sex, specifically Wolf's vagina, which is clearly getting above her station and, we are assured, has nothing new or interesting to say.

I suppose some might argue we’ve come a long way towards a frank, intelligent discussion of sexuality if our greatest mouthpieces of the cultural elite see fit to discuss a businesswoman’s effort to change the image of sex and an extended personal consideration of a female reproductive organ.  But discussions are as much about tone as topic.  The tittering ridicule of Naomi Wolf’s latest book in the media reveals that those of us who respect eroticism have much more to take on than the ghost of Andrea Dworkin.




Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

6 comments:

  1. Hi, Donna,

    Funny you should talk about these two articles, since both caught my attention. And I have to agree that I didn't see what Cindy Gallop's wardrobe preferences have to do with her heroic endeavor, but I do like her style (both sartorial and intellectual).

    As for the review of Wolf's book, I couldn't even finish it. It seemed like such a classic example of self-congratulatory snark, it should be taken as the epitome of what reviewers should never do. I believe that anyone who has taken the time and effort to write a book deserves a modicum of respect. Ariel Levy should be spanked.

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  2. Some really brilliant observations here, Donna. As is so often the case, you manage to make a complicated argument (and my own convoluted thoughts on the subject) coherent and insightful.

    Our cultural issues with sexuality-- especially women's sexuality-- continues to baffle me. I suppose it always will.

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  3. Lol, Lisabet--a good spanking might indeed be the proper recompense for Ms. Levy. While wearing the airs of the cultural elite, she seems so very unaware of her own biases. Believe me, you did yourself a favor by not finishing the review!

    Thank you, Kristina. There is so much to baffle us, in particular why sexuality is always framed as a "woman's" issue, when the other gender is equally involved and affected by repression. I still believe writing lots of good erotica is going to make a difference down the road!

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  4. Hello Donna,

    I think you put a very precise finger on what I find so offensive about a lot of 'intellectual' approaches to sexuality in forums like the New Yorker.

    "I find this description of the failings of pro-sex feminism so vague, it almost defies dispute."

    That's because your giving the writer far too much credit. "...many of the pro-sex feminists fell prey to the alluring but dubious conflation of fornication and emancipation" suggests that this is a ridiculous notion. But it isn't.

    If the forced 'normalization' of fornication has been used as a tool of control, it's not surprising that fornication on one's own terms is indeed highly emancipating.

    A analogy to her statement would be that gay couples, joining together in unabashed matrimony, are somehow wrong for believing that their newly won right to be wed is absolutely unrelated to their acceptance as equal members of society.

    It's a stupid statement. And it belies her lack of understanding that freedom isn't simply cerebral. It's genital, too.

    Thanks for a great post.

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  5. The amazing thing is that people, who at least appear to be intelligent based on vocabulary and command of sentence structure, can embrace the kind of duality some reviewers do, in some cases.

    Your post wonderfully highlights this duality. An excellent "review of the review."

    I do think, that in a way, as a society we are advancing slowly, into greater frankness about sexuality. But in some key places, it is one step forward, two steps back.

    Keep marching forward!

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  6. Unsurprisingly, this post is a thorough expose of the anti-sex agenda that operates at the heart of the Literary Industry. No one works harder at tracking down and answering the mainstream anti-sex arguments than Donna George Storey. Sadly Levy's reduction of the feminist movement's context and aims isn't surprising even in a supposedly prestigious magazine. The literary critic is blind to both recent political history and to the pro-sex writing that people of her ilk have, over the last 30 or 40 years, tried to roll back under the guise of "taste." As this post points out and as Remittance Girl reminds us in her comments, control is the agenda, even of the NYer and Lit Inc, and that control is very cleverly exercised, even camouflaged as highbrow book review. Control what is permitted in writing and art and you control free expression and cut off all attempts at emancipation that take place outside of writing and art. The "pure mind" is a destructive myth peddled to us by the unimaginative. When people start to see that there isn't much space between The New Yorker and Rick Santorum, we'll all be better off. Thanks for the great post!

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